WASHINGTON — For months, Mark Wagner stuck by John McCain, even as the economy stalled and other Americans came to blame Republican leadership. Then, about three weeks ago, the deepening economic downturn pushed him to reconsider.
Now, the Florida salesman and staunch Republican has abandoned the GOP ticket. Sarah Palin, he thinks, looks under-equipped to be vice president. And McCain, he says, displayed an unsteady response to what may be a global economic depression.
The financial crisis has turned the last three weeks into a crucial and possibly decisive period in the presidential contest -- a time when many Americans have taken a new look at each candidate and then moved toward Democrat Barack Obama.
Like a wave, the crisis has washed over other factors in a contest that had seemed to be a dead heat, moving enough voters to give the senator from Illinois a consistent lead in polls nationwide and in key battleground states, including Florida, Virginia and Ohio, where President Bush secured his reelection four years ago.
Republican officials in several states say they fear voters have judged McCain and Palin harshly in how they reacted to the financial downturn. Obama, meanwhile, now looks like an acceptable alternative to many voters who had been hesitant to pull the lever for him because of concerns about his untraditional background and relatively recent appearance in national affairs.
"If you looked at some of the decisions that Obama's made, and the consistency and levelness that he's had in these trying times over the past few weeks, in my opinion he's blown McCain away," said Wagner, 47, of suburban Tampa.
In addition, Wagner disapproves of Palin's refusal to cooperate with a state legislative investigation that found she had abused her power as Alaska governor, and he calls McCain's recent attacks on Obama's character and past associations "disgusting."
"McCain was supposed to be the steady hand with experience," he said.
Some Republicans report hearing of similar conversions in Ohio, Indiana and North Carolina, and they fear that the change is irreversible. Voters who have been blaming Bush and Republicans in general for the financial crisis now seem to be tying it around McCain's neck as well.
Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, said he was looking at an "Obama tide" in his district and wondering about his own reelection: "Can I withstand a firestorm?"
"The impression of McCain on the economy is that he wanted more deregulation than Bush" at a time that voters are demanding more help from the government, he said. "I'm not sure right now that McCain can carry seven states," added Souder, whose home state has not picked a Democrat for president since 1964. "In the end I think McCain will carry Indiana. But if you are fighting for Indiana, you are in trouble."
Tom Ellis, GOP chairman in Butler County, Ohio, a key Republican stronghold in 2004, said there had been "some slippage" for McCain in recent weeks. He said Republicans were finding it "hard to penetrate" the torrent of bad economic news and deliver an effective pitch to independents. And the Arizona senator's attacks on Obama's past links to former radical William Ayers, he said, "do not garner him any advantage" with swing voters.
"There's a sense of frustration at this point," Ellis said. "What I hear is people are expecting more of the Republican ticket. They've got to speak directly to the economic issues. People want to hear specific solutions from Sen. McCain."
With 23 days to go in a campaign marked by many surprising twists, there is still time for McCain to make up lost ground. Polls show that many voters still question Obama's experience; and McCain's message, particularly his questioning of Obama's character and judgment, could take hold among the swing voters who will decide the election.
The credit market could stabilize, calming public anxiety and allowing McCain to change the subject to more favorable issues. An outside event, namely one that returns the discussion to national security, might allow McCain to remind voters of his strength in that area.
But polls clearly show that a major shift occurred in mid-September, just as Wall Street financial institutions started to fall and Congress began debating its $700-billion rescue plan. On Sept. 24, McCain took the surprising step of "suspending" his campaign, returning to Washington to participate in the negotiations and attempting to pressure Obama to delay their first debate.
That very week, as Obama aides began to cast McCain's actions as erratic, and as voters recoiled at the huge price of the bailout, Obama moved ahead in some so-called red states that are must-wins for McCain. Obama took a lead in several polls in Florida, Ohio and Virginia, while the race tightened in two other Republican-dominated battlegrounds, Indiana and North Carolina.